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Could big German agribusinesses do without glyphosate?

Hardy Graupner
May 27, 2019

Monsanto's controversial weed killer Roundup is used widely by many agricultural firms across Germany. They say consumers are barely aware of what it would mean to stop using the herbicide. Hardy Graupner reports.

Tractor spraying RoundUp
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J.-F. Monier

Only a few kilometers west of Berlin, Dirk Peters runs a huge agricultural company called Agro-Farm Nauen, which is located in the rural state of Brandenburg surrounding the German capital.

As the chief executive of the agribusiness, he's responsible for the roughly 2,500 hectares of crops including wheat, barley, rye and oat. The firm also grows corn and sugar beets for its own biogas plant, which generates electricity and produces biomethane.

There are fields here as far as the eye can see, and as in most other agricultural businesses across the nation, weeds are a nuisance. There's no denying that the latter eat into harvests as they deprive crops of nutrients.

Glyphosate part of cultivation scheme

Peters makes no secret of the fact that Monsanto's (Bayer's) glyphosate product Roundup is used here widely to give the crops a crucial headstart.

"The use of glyphosate is based on an agricultural cultivation strategy that we've adopted," Peters tells DW. "It's a non-selective herbicide that kills all broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops," he explains.

Head of Agro-Farm Nauen, Dirk Peters
The head of Agro-Farm Nauen, Dirk Peters, says it's not so easy to find a replacement for glyphosateImage: Agro-Farm Nauen/Karin Gemballa

"We use it in particular on our 100 hectares of fields for the cultivation of sugar beets," he explains. "We have green fields in the fall to make sure they don't lie fallow — but in spring we use glyphosate to prepare the fields for the sugar beets and get rid of everything that could harm the future harvest."

Legally, Agro-Farm Nauen is on the safe side in doing so, as in 2017, EU authorities permitted the use of glyphosate in the bloc for a further five years. But the company is certainly aware of mounting criticism from environmental and consumer protection groups, which are suggesting that  German farmers could do without that herbicide.

"We're constantly faced with with accusations that we pour large quantities of glyphosate onto our fields, but that's complete nonsense," Peters says. "First, we wouldn't be able to afford it as the herbicide costs a lot of money, and secondly, farmers here know how to deal with glyphosate responsibly. Of course, there will always be the odd black sheep in the family, but I'm not aware of any such cases here in Brandenburg. We don't use the weed killer if we don't have to, and there have been years when we didn't need to use it at all or only in very low quantities," he adds.

A sugar beets field belonging to Agro-Farm Nauen in Brandenburg, Germany
Sugar beets and weeds can't really live in peaceful coexistence, and Agro-Farm Nauen makes sure that weeds don't get the upper handImage: Agro-Farm Nauen/Kennet-Schulze Petzold

"And let me point out that our company hasn't used glyphosate at all to protect crops that are ready for harvest for many years."

Using plows instead?

Critics of the herbicide in Brandenburg are quick to demand that weeds be removed mechanically, but Peters says they usually fail to mention the downsides of such an approach.

"Yes, another cultivation strategy would indeed be to remove the weeds mechanically with tractor-driven plows," Peters admits. "But that would cost a lot more energy and increase the use of diesel enormously and our CO2 emissions respectively. Food products would become more expensive," he notes. "And using plows extensively would harm our fields as it would worsen our already existing wind erosion problems."

Nonetheless, it looks like the use of glyphosate in agriculture in the EU is on its way out despite the period of grace it was given two years ago. So, is there anything to replace it?

 "I'm almost certain that industry has already something in the drawer to replace glyphosate, but I'm just as certain that it will be more expensive," Peters argues. "There's a little biologist and chemist in each of us farmers, so we'll probably be able to concoct something of our own and get the right agents together to help us in a post-glyphosate world."

The head of Agro-Farm Nauen told DW that he'd followed the court trials in the US where some complainants have already secured damages, as jury members were convinced that Roundup had played a role in the plaintiffs' developing cancer.

There's just one study I know of that concludes that glyphosate may cause cancer while so many other studies don't come to the same  conclusion — that says it all, Peters emphasizes. "Looking at the jury trials in the US, I have my misgivings that the jury members really have the necessary knowledge about the subject for a fair verdict."

Roundup being used in a garden
Agriculture is not the only beneficiary of glyphosateImage: Reuters/B. Tessier

For the record

Annual glyphosate use worldwide has jumped in recent years and reached 850,000 tons in 2017.

For the time being, glyphosate looks set to remain the most widely used herbicide in German agriculture, because of its unbeatable efficiency as a weed killer.

Studies compiled in 2017 suggest that glyphosate use has remained relatively stable in Europe's biggest economy, at roughly 5,000 tons per year. It's not only farms that have shown a huge interest in the herbicide.

German rail operator Deutsche Bahn is the biggest single corporate buyer of glyphosate. The company says it knows of no other substance that could keep its 35,000 kilometers (22,000 miles) of railbed free of weeds in order to keep it stable (torching weeds wouldn't  be a real alternative either as it would be lot more labor-intensive and cause high CO2 emissions).

And let's not forget German households cultivating some 17 million gardens and garden plots across the nation. At the turn of the century, 73% of them used pesticides and herbicides, according to the Federal Consumer Protection Ministry. How many of them actually resort to glyphosate is not known.